Monday, July 2, 2018

Crossing Over by Brooke Fieldhouse

A childless couple travel to Geneva and visit an old widower friend, who lets them in on a spooky local mystery; by Brooke Fieldhouse.

I always suspected that I would lose him.



'Any drinks?' The words are in harmony with the smile, orchestrated with sparkling eyes, and in perfect pitch with the livery of Swissair. The stewardess's lips look engagingly red, and for the first time I feel envy, of her and of all her kind.

'G and T for me!'

Simon's voice has never sounded so loud. Heads in front swivel to investigate. '...Aren't you having one Shivvy love?' He spits the first syllable of the verb, like a child in a fit of petulance.

'I'm not thirsty.'

'What's thirst got to do with it?'

He's right, what has thirst got to do with it?

There's that tsssch when his wedge-shaped thumb tweaks the top off the tonic while he stares out of the window at the snow-capped mountains as we head home to Heathrow.

'You've been quiet all morning.'

It's true, I have.

'...Pale as well.'

It's true, I am... Very.



When we arrived five days ago I was already feeling tense. I wanted to go Eurostar but Simon said it would take too long. 'Time is of the essence,' he said. In the end going by air saved us an hour, and once at the hotel he'd locked himself in the en-suite. There'd been the usual whistling, humming... Then the words.

'Put your hands in the air, Simple Simon says.'

I blamed his mother. She and his dad had bought the record when it came out, and after he was born they'd played it incessantly. Harmless; an innocent piece of instruction, gentle entertainment for a guiltless toddler... But it turned into an indelible mantra, it wasn't just his signature tune it became his word of command.

'Do it when Simon says, and you will never be out!'

'Howza, howza, howza,' came the chant from the en-suite, interspersed with hums and whistles. It was ritual and I knew what it was working up to. I was lying fully clothed on the bed, engrossed in The Blue Guide to Switzerland when I heard the soft click of the bolt, and there he was, framed in the doorway, all six-foot three of him, and topped with the white blonde hair he always wore in a neatly-cut fringe. He'd left his round spectacles in the en-suite... Yes, all forty-five years of him, and clad only in a pair of ultra-skimpy scarlet kecks - the ones with blue stars which his mother had given him for Christmas.

'Howza, howza, howzaboutit?'

I always acquiesced. It was what being married was all about.



Afterwards he would say, 'You know Shivvy-love...' - always called me that, couldn't bear Siobhan - '...you plan your life too much. You should be more spontaneous. Go with the flow.' He'd take a deep breath, give his hips a little wriggle, and his hands would go to his head.

'Put your hands on your head, Simple Simon says... pheuw, pheuw, pheuw, pheuw - er - er - er -er...' At that point he'd usually give me a little slap on the bottom, a perfect piece of percussion to complete the serenade. It had been fun at first, the thought of children, but when they didn't come...



When I came out of the en-suite I could see him on the roof terrace. He was wearing a pair of yellow stay-press trousers, a mint-coloured pilot shirt, and he caught my eye through the French doors.

'You know Shivvy-love you really should be out here in the fresh air, not skulking indoors like that. It's an exquisite evening, come; look! I can see right across the lake. The French call it Lac Léman, the English say Lake Geneva. It's a pure tectonic formation.'

'...Really?'

Facts came thick and fast with Simon. Considering I was supposed to be the guide book swot, and him the goer-with-the-flow it was all a bit weird. As well as his mother, I blamed his career in IT.

How we'd got together I couldn't imagine. When we went to parties, people would say 'Oh, we thought Simon was the artist! I mean he dresses so colourfully and you're so...' I think bland was the word which never quite spoke its name. Mum had always advised that dark clothes were best for my sallow skin. She was the same; 'we're naturally dusky,' she'd said.

For our opening dinner of the holiday I decided to risk my blue cocktail dress and I forced myself into it to the sound of further humming coming from the terrace. This time it was more of a 'diddle' than a 'hum'.

'Diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle der... clap clap clap.' He was cupping his hands to look like the beaks of birds opening and shutting, wafting his arms like wings flapping...'...and wiggle your bum...' With an emphatic clap of his hands he bounded into the room.

'Do you realize Shivvy-love that the man who wrote The Birdie Song came from near here - well not exactly near, but from this neck of the alpine forests... a harmonica player from Davos by the name of Werner Thomas.'

'...Really?'

I was reaching for pearls - not real, not five-star like the hotel, but the general effect would have to do.

'...Yes, and the guy who sang Doing the Funky Chicken was called Rufus Thomas. Funny that - both Thomas and both with avian tendencies - don't you think?'

'Very funny,' I managed a smile.



'I'm taking in the ambience,' he announced the next morning breathing deeply, rising on tiptoe, head tipping backwards as he looked out of the French windows. I dare say he was a bit alpine himself - a sharp-cornered pillar with a mini avalanche taking place at its summit.

'See that building up there?'

I peered through the triangle of air where his right elbow was thrusting, hand resting upon his magenta-trousered hip.

'...Looks like Neuschwanstein.' True, it was a mass of turrets, wavy walls, and rusticated ramparts. Way up high, standing on its own, close to the snow line and surrounded by spiky evergreens. But it wasn't in Disneyfied white like the Bavarian schloss, it was dark and grimy-looking, as if it concealed something unpleasant.

'I want to go up there!' His voice was insistent, as if he'd read my thoughts and was delighting in pushing me.

I knew what it was because I'd just been reading about it.

'It's a hotel - was a TB sanatorium.' But being in possession of the facts didn't make me feel any more comfortable about it.

'Sanna, sannatoriooom!' He said it in best ghost-imitation voice - like a child testing the acoustic of a space. 'How do people get up there?'

'Funicular I suppose - doesn't say. I'd quite like to go to the museum actually.'

This was what always happened. While I would read the guide books, and search for folk history, families, and festivals, there was nothing Simon liked better than a session in the casino - oh he wasn't a gambler, he just liked beating people. I'm not saying he wasn't sociable but everybody he met could count themselves a loser, be it wind-surfing, go-carting, or poker - he had to win, there wasn't much else in life for Simon, he'd never failed anything.

'All right we'll go to the museum then we'll walk up to the "sanna".'

'Walk?'

'Walk.'



The museum was on the edge of the old town. Different after the new town with its tall terraces of Beaux-Arts hotels with hooded windows like tired eyes peering across the lake. There seemed to be a clear divide between old and new. Physical in the form of a deep ravine with a railway line, but I could sense a less tangible form of dislocation. The further you climbed from the lake the fewer people there were, and it seemed that no one except me was interested in the museum, deserted apart from its attendant, an elderly man with a hairless domed head which had the dull glow of ancient polished hardwood.

Entering the building felt like climbing inside a giant decaying cuckoo clock.

'I'm going for a wander.' Simon hated museums and had already hit his head on one of the timber beams. I heard the bang of the iron door latch and glimpsed him through the tiny windows, loping away from the building while I tip-tapped over the stone floor from room to room inhaling the stench of leather, tallow, and something I was unable to name.

The longer I stayed in the building the odder I began to feel. The figures and tableaux in the room sets seemed to possess a strange quality as if they had a life within. Soon I felt driven to return to the entrance where polished wood man was still sitting behind his desk.

'I'll come back later... We have to go on somewhere else.' I walked toward the door feeling as if I could faint at any moment. I could see the orange of Simon's puffer jacket through the window. He was back and tapping his feet. Hands on head, magenta hips trembling. The attendant followed me outside.

'Are you all right?' You look a little pale his voice seemed to be saying. Simon turned at the sound of another male voice.

'I'm okay,' I replied... 'just a bit tired after the flight yesterday.' The attendant looked as if he was expecting me to say something more.

'Have you crossed over?' The words were whispered, caught me unawares, and seemed heavy with a meaning which I was unable to comprehend. There was silence except for the distant rush of water in mountain streams.

'...Into the old town I mean.' He said it in full voice this time and as if he'd uttered something he hadn't meant to and was trying to cover it up. I found myself reaching for Simon's hand but it wasn't there.



'What do you think he meant?'

'Crossing over; chromosomal crossover, the exchange of genetic material between homologous chromosomes that results in recombinant chromosomes during sexual...' The thing about Simon was that he always had an answer, even when he didn't have one. '...Border document fraud, extortion, the asylum process, refugee camps - all that sort of stuff... Cross-dressing perhaps.' He exhaled firmly, glad to have dealt with the matter.

We would have to leave the old town for another day, and the sanatorium. We had to be at Tom's at two o'clock and judging from the map it was a good half-hour's walk. So down Avenue Rambert, along Rues de Sanzier, Chamevoz, and Belmont we made our way, down the mountain and onto a terrace which ran parallel with the lakeside. It felt almost suburban.

'We turn off down here.' I motioned left toward the flaking parapet of a railway bridge with a dark opening below. To our right on the opposite side of the road was a clipped hedge and beyond that a sward of green shaded by acacia, cherry trees, and dotted with rows of white headstones.

'They look like war graves - all the same.' Simon sounded puzzled.

'It's the Commune, it's how everything's run here. No grand gestures like in Père Lachaise.'

'Have you noticed the number of seasoned folk in the town?' I hadn't. 'Oh yes! it's got an unusually high proportion of widows.' So, he had been doing a bit of research after all. I smiled, it had been my idea for us to come and visit Tom. He and Simon hadn't been in touch since school, and Simon had only found out about Tom's condition through the Old Boys magazine. I'd seen the photos of the two of them - daft antics on the playing field - and thought it might do Simon some good, and Tom - the poor guy seemed to have become a recluse since Marie's death. I smiled again, wistfully this time. When we'd found out that children weren't coming our way I'd wanted to adopt, but Simon hadn't been keen.

I could hear our feet echoing off the walls as we walked through the dark arch. Simon's voice sounded funny.

'Byron!' Simon's histrionic bass resounded off the concrete-lined tunnel. 'Byrrronnn.' He was doing his little acoustic test again and he'd also obviously studied the map because as we emerged into pale sunlight there it was; Rue de Byron, and just around the corner was Tom's flat. I felt nervous and wished I hadn't been so adventurous to suggest that we visit him.

'...All mod cons! Specifically designed for the chair user, but you're far more advanced in the UK with disabled access than we are here.' Tom's information surprised me - as did his enthusiasm. I'd expected... well I don't know quite what I'd expected except somebody who was less positive about life.

There were ramps. Doors which opened inwards where appropriate, outward when needed, and sliding when neither of the above would do. There were grab rails, and the kitchen was a dream with its doorless cupboards, top-boxes for high level access, and telescopic hinges so you could pull a shelf toward you to reach for a bag, a tin, a packet. I was about to offer to make us all tea but checked myself. Tom was clearly in control.

Tom could stand, but for short periods and only by pulling, pushing, and leaning. As he stood to demonstrate how clever the moving microwave unit was I could see that he and Simon were exactly the same height. Tom was doing all the talking, Simon uncharacteristically quiet and no doubt trying to recall incidents of a bygone age.

We followed Tom as he whizzed from the kitchen into a pale room furnished with sofa, low table, and two curvy wood Thonet armchairs either side of a large window which faced in the direction we'd come. Simon and I took an armchair each, while Tom drew himself up next to the sofa facing the window. I wondered how many visitors other than us and carers Tom might have had this month - or year for that matter.

'We noticed Rue de Byron on our way here...'

'...Oh, Byron, he was on the loose round here, but the famous literary sojourn actually took place over the other side of the lake... the incident when he, the Shelleys, and Doctor Polidori were holed up in the Villa Diodati during a thunderstorm.' I'd read about it.

'Yes, Byron was quite beastly to Polidori - kept calling him Doctor Polly, didn't he?'

'...Very manipulative man Lord B. - simply wanted Polidori to keep him supplied with recreational drugs, and medication to treat his regular doses of the clap... But Polidori came up trumps in the horror story writing competition. Not only did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein, "Dr Polly" penned The Vampyre, the forerunner of Dracula. Byron had underestimated Polidori's creative ability.'

'Do you think it was all creative genius, or did the atmosphere of the place help?' Simon had been silent since the technical demonstration in the kitchen. Tom's reply was specific.

'Byron chose the location with care. He didn't want somewhere which was just pretty; it had to have the right vibe; sexual and fantastic. These lakes and mountains aren't just for tourists, they're stiff with myths and legends; Nordic, Teutonic, Jungian.'

'Jungian?' repeated Simon. 'Junnng, Jungfrau, Junnng.' He was doing his little sound test, knee trembling, foot vibrating on the pale parquet, fingers drumming on the wood of the Thonet armchair. Tom smiled. At least he knew Simon of old so I didn't need to feel embarrassed.

'What's the significance of the phrase "crossing over?"'

Tom looked as if I'd hit him with a cross-bow bolt. His eyes swivelled toward the window, then back to me.

'Who mentioned that?' He was almost snappy.

'The museum attendant... I think he thought I wasn't well. I had a bit of a funny turn.'

There was a long silence. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Simon's hands going up to his head. Eventually Tom spoke, slowly.

'There are people in this town who like to be dramatic. It's good for business...' He paused as if he was struggling to come to a decision. At last I could see he'd made his mind up.

'Look you're my friends, I trust you, if I didn't tell you and you found out from... whoever, you'd think ill of me so here goes...' Simon was looking around the room as if he was avoiding the eyes of someone who was about to tell him off. I wondered what on earth I'd lifted the lid off.

'Its local legend and it's kind of Jungian - what we were just talking about, to do with souls and psychology - 'the id' and 'ego' and so forth. There's this belief that there's a power, in the mountains here, that can restore human life.'

The drumming noise coming from the arm of the Thonet chair had become louder. Once again Tom glanced toward the window.

'...It's not exactly restoring life, because the effect is only meant to be temporary for the recipient. It's all to do with the idea of sacrificing the ego.'

'...Ego death? Like with a hallucinogenic drug?' Simon gave one of his little smiles, as if to show he was on top of the topic.

'Yes, but this is permanent - for the donor that is.'

'...Donor?' I'd begun to feel curiously breathless. 'How does that leave the donor?'

'Hmm, like the Ring Wraiths in Lord of the Rings? A slave, a cipher, an empty vessel?' I was looking at Tom, searching for the trace of a twinkle. He saw my face. 'Okay, perhaps not, who knows?'

'Can we survive without our ego? I know the soul is immortal, the id the instinctive mind, the ego the self, but which drives what?' It was a question I didn't want to ask but I felt gripped by a strange compulsion to know the answer.

'Some people's egos need cutting down to size!' said Tom and we all laughed, a little nervously. 'Who knows?' he added shrugging.

'...So, you believe all this?' Simon was rising, as if about to go.

'It's not a case of blindly believing, it's more a case of not not believing. It's not unique; people all over the world believe in an afterlife.'

Simon was pacing to the window.

'So, you're saying - or you're not not believing - that the dead can rise?' Simon was no longer looking at Tom; he was staring out of the window toward the cemetery.

'It sounds a bit like Stanley Spencer's painting of resurrection in Cookham churchyard,' I suggested, thinking of a painting which was a favourite of mine.

'Yes, but not quite so jolly.' Tom was looking as if he'd had second thoughts about his candour. Simon was starting to wriggle, shoulders undulating, magenta bottom gyrating. He turned.

'Marie's in there isn't she?' His head gestured toward the Cimetière de Mere, and back into the room his gelid blue eyes fixed on me, me not Tom, as if I was the cause of all this. Simon's face had turned the colour of his hair.

Tom nodded. 'We never said goodbye, it was so sudden... And we'd had this terrible row. 'During the pause which followed I don't think I've ever felt so much compassion for another person as I felt for Tom.

'...What about sex?' Simon was leaning against the window sill, the back of his head almost touching the glass.

'Oh really! I haven't the foggiest idea about any necrophiliac details.' Tom gave a short gaspy sort of laugh.

'No, I mean gender, gender of the donor!' Simon was almost shouting.

'Search me? I guess souls, ids and egos aren't gender-prejudiced, and it's hardly like a heart transplant, so...' He blew through his cheeks, shook his head like a dog out of water. '...Probably doesn't matter... It's all about will anyway; the donor has to concentrate everything on making the sacrifice.'

It was a horrible turn of conversation, and it was my fault, I shouldn't have mentioned Byron. Bugger Byron! I wanted to make amends.

'Look Tom, why don't you come to the hotel for some supper with us?'

'Thanks, but no. Difficult... Partly me, partly large numbers of people, and believe it or not the toilets for the restaurant aren't very wheelchair friendly so I have to be careful what I drink and keep myself on a two-hour lead!'

Simon wouldn't let it alone.

'...This transformation; ego death - or whatever, where's it meant to take place?'

'Have you seen the old sanatorium? They say it's on the forest slopes way above there, right up beyond the snow line.'



'We could have easily got him across to the hotel you know,' I said as Simon and I took the fifteen-minute walk back to the hotel. 'A visit from a friend or relative would do him good - never mind us.' But Tom was alone in the world; that was the problem. Simon wasn't listening, seemed to be at work on his own theory. Then he spoke.

'I think he's given up on life. This whole wheelchair business is psychosomatic.'

For a man who had once said to me 'I don't do subtexts', psychosomatic was an odd word for Simon to use. Hmm, giving up on life, in a way that's what I'd done. There'd been nothing wrong with Simon's sperm. We'd tried everything - well, as far as I was prepared to go, but even that had failed.



We saw Tom several times over the next few days - even persuaded him to supper. 'Crossing over' was not directly spoken of. '...Look higher Shivvy-love! Up there, up and away, up where the air is clear, top-o-the-world, climb every mountain; soaring, rising, alpine, altitude, up in the clouds. What a lark ascending!'

His hotel room terrace antics had undergone a disturbing change. The pat-a-cake sounds and rhythms of the Birdie Song had been replaced with something decidedly more urgent, persistent, and dangerous... Oh there was clapping, but it was on the back beat, the off-beat, the over beat. 'We gotta take you higher, a natural high, a ghetto high... down high yo high...' I'd never seen or heard him imitate James Brown before. Even when he was quiet it seemed like he was somewhere else, as if he was planning something.

We'd not returned to the old town, nor had we climbed up to the sanatorium, and tomorrow we would be getting the train back to Geneva, and the flight to London.

'I really want to see the old town.' This time I sounded almost apologetic, 'I could go on my own?'

'Yup, okay.' He said it staccato and an octave higher than his normal baritone in a kind of if you insist tone. It was a tone which also told me that he was coming with me because he didn't want to let me out of his sight.

We walked over bridges... A steel one above the railway line where grape vines grew incongruously against the embankment; smaller older bridges, hump-backed and made from black stone. We climbed higher, the lake to our right seemed so light and flat it might well have been frozen. The distant mountains to the south looked like giant oyster shells stacked on some vast mythical fishmonger's stall. I hardly dared look up at the mountain towering above us, and even if I'd found the nerve there was a mist descending and the sanatorium building would be obscured.

There were no shops or cafes in sight. Only smashed and decomposing wood buildings, rough cast walls, abandoned farms, and a stumpy chimney next to a timber barn with its roof fallen in. The mist had come still lower and all I wanted was to be back in the hotel room.

We came to a narrow pathway winding upwards - tiny granite cobbles, their top sides shining in the moist-aired light. I knew there was only one place it could lead. Opposite, and standing on the edge of an apparently bottomless drop was a church. I'd thought its spire was another chimney but it was real, and it was open.

Simon hated churches, loathed every genuflection, credo, and chant. 'I can't think why you believe all that stuff Shivvy-love'. As I clicked open the door handle and entered into the polished and gritty richness of the interior with its souvenir of incense I knew exactly what my reply was to be in future. 'It's not about blindly believing, it's about not not believing.'

I said a little prayer, stepped back out into moist chill of the mountainside and crunched my way toward the stone parapet where Simon was standing facing into what had come close to zero visibility above the lake. He was holding out both his hands like a multicoloured version of the concrete Christ above Rio de Janeiro. He heard me and turned, raising his arms above his head.

'Shaka-laka-Laka Leman... Go Simon go!' His pink hips were gyrating, his indigo bomber-clad torso swaying. The voice seemed to be rising from below the parapet wall. Abruptly his face relaxed, hands fell back to his sides. He sounded almost concerned.

'You look all in, Shivvy-love. Why don't you go back, have a swim, a massage or something... Relax! I'll be along later.'

I stood watching him go, across the road, up the cobbled pathway, up, up until his form seemed to liquefy in the murk.



We're approaching Heathrow. Looking out of the plane I can see Kew Gardens and the long shadow cast by its pagoda. I hear the frantic whine of engines, and the little thump as the landing gear drops into place. There's another kind of thumping on the floor of the aircraft; soft, rhythmic, repetitive. Its Simon's foot, and his wedge-shaped fingers drum on the arm of the seat. He hasn't looked me in the eye for some time.



I got back to the hotel and had that swim - that massage. Simon had been right, I'd needed it. When I returned to the bedroom he was there, in bed, asleep. It was about 6:00pm. He didn't look like he was going to wake soon so I left him. He seemed exhausted and there was a strange vacant expression on his face. I didn't bother with supper - ate cheese, bread and wine we'd bought for a picnic. In the end I got in next to him but I couldn't sleep. I had a feeling about him.

At first after we'd talked about 'crossing over' with Tom I'd thought Simon's scorn of me had been intensified because he was engaged in some personal struggle, that he'd been desperate to help his old school friend. But as I looked closely at his face, I realized that whatever he'd done he'd done it to prove that what Tom had talked about was all myth - just like Simon said religion was. He'd done it to prove me wrong. Somehow, I knew that he hadn't been far enough up the mountain, he hadn't gone the distance. It was the first thing he'd ever failed at.

...That was why I got up, while it was still dark. I left Simon lying there sucking his thumb while I slipped away and through the town, across the steel bridge, over the hump-backed black bridge, past the factory chimney and church. I'd thought that what I might be doing could be wrong, but I'd checked the doctrine of the life everlasting. It's the spirit which gives life, and to take one's own is a mortal sin. But it doesn't say anything about giving life. We're all intended to give a life, but too frequently Mankind ends up taking it.

I climbed the winding path with its cobbles shining in the moonlight; clambered around the sanatorium with its turrets, wavy walls, and rusticated ramparts. I went higher than I could have ever thought possible. The moon vanished and I felt the sting of snow against my cheeks. I grasped tree bark, grass, rock - anything to help pull me higher. I shouted and I cried to distract the pain, and all the time my mind concentrated on the possible, not the impossible... the 'could be' instead of the 'could never be'.

At last there were no trees, hardly any air, only snow and rock. When it happened, I just knew - at least, I told myself I knew. Somehow, I found the strength to get back to the hotel, tended my wounds, showered and got in to bed beside Simon.



I am pale, I am quiet, but I don't feel that much different. A little numb, a little sore, a little stiff perhaps. Had I been dreaming? My bruises and cuts testify otherwise. Is part of me now really lying in the Cimetiere de Mere? Who knows?

There's that unique vibration as we touch down, the shudder as the brakes are applied, and the plane comes to a halt. There's the pinging of safety belts being released, everybody trying to stand up at once, and the snap-snap of the of the overhead lockers being opened.

Simon's on his feet switching his smart phone back on. He studies it, frowns, frowns again and his left hand goes to his head. His face once again has that vacant look it had last night when he lay sleeping. After several more moments of hesitation he holds the phone in front of me.

'It's from Tom. Look!'

5 comments:

  1. An intriguing and unsettling story. Plenty of spaces for the reader to fill with nightmarish features of their own. Now, back into the sunshine. Many thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. Mysterious and philosophical with excellent character development and a strong sense of place to draw the reader in. Quirky Simon is quite an original creation. Siobhan would be much better off without him.

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  3. So many nice turns of phrase - i.e.: "I think bland was the word which never quite spoke its name." And, as Dave points out, the characters jump off the page...err, screen. The story has a good pull, slowly drawing you in, tempting you with each sentence to read just one more...

    Nice work. And a little "unsettling," as Ceinwen points out, at the same time.

    Jim

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  4. I really enjoyed this story. I agree that it is unsettling at times, but that's the kind of story I enjoy. Makes the reader think.

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  5. Thanks all ever so for your helpful comments. I'm delighted that you felt it worked in terms of subliminally building possibilities in the reader's mind so that by the final sentence the reader is totally in charge of the narrative! It's a technique I've been wanting to try for some time.
    B r o o k e

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